David's Diaries 2007
Bulgaria 18th - 22nd February 2007
The early arrival of my flight from Tobago gave me plenty of time to transfer to Gatwick’s North Terminal and look for arriving members of the Bulgarian party. I first saw Michael Crowther, then Martin and Barbara Woodcock, while a call from David Nott confirmed that he was under doctor’s orders not to travel, having already missed a week’s golfing in Portugal a few days before. When Ian and Susan Lewis arrived they told me that John Davies wouldn’t be joining us, because of his daughter’s divorce going to court on the 22nd. Identifying Martin Ewans proved easy, but it wasn’t until I was on the plane that I saw Roy and Janet Chapman.
The plane took off 15 minutes late, but the flight was remarkable for the delicious (cold) lunch, followed afterwards by a glass of New Zealand sauvignon blanc. I then had a good snooze. We arrived on time, queued for passport inspection, then soon met our man from Neophron, Svetoslav Spasov. (Neophron, the tour company, is a subsidiary of the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds, so profits help finance conservation.) The bags were loaded onto the coach and off we went through the bright streets of Varna, which gave the impression of being a prosperous and busy town. It took about an hour to reach our hotel, with the only excitement a sighting of a wild cat crossing the road, missed by all except Roy and our leader. We soon sat down for dinner - salad with cured peppers, followed by a sort of pork casserole, all washed down with plenty of local red wine. It was tasty and good. I was in bed by 10pm, and asleep as soon as the light went out.
By 6.45 it was already quite light outside, revealing a cold, frosty morning. I ventured out before breakfast, seeing great tits, house sparrows and a female sparrowhawk. We had breakfast at 7am: tomatoes and cucumbers, sliced salami, traditional white crumbly cheese and toast. I had a very sweet hot chocolate: I’ll stick to fruit juice in future.
Dimiter had replaced Svetoslav as our guide. He is the director of Neophron, and will be with us for the whole trip. We were all on the bus by 8am, setting off for our drive to Durankulak, the best area for seeing red-breasts. We had already been warned that numbers were exceptionally low this winter because of the exceptionally mild weather. Our first flock of around 1,000 whitefronts contained c10 red-breasts. We watched them first from the bus to avoid spooking them, then climbed out and spent some time looking at them and trying to find a lesser whitefront, but only managing a single greylag. The sky had been mainly overcast until then, but as we watched so the clouds pulled back, and we were eventually watching the geese illuminated by the winter sun. Even with the sunshine the red-breasts were still surprisingly difficult to pick out from the whitefronts, though with practice it became a little easier.
While we watched a Land Rover Discovery pulled up close to us, with two chaps from the Bulgarian Ornithological Society, plus one from the RSPB, the other from the WWT. The latter was wearing his kilt: his knees must have been frozen, as it was a chilly morning. Skylarks sang behind us.
We then drove down to the coast, just half a mile away. There was a large pack of coot on the sea, while we also saw a couple of black-necked grebes, six black-throated divers flying out over the sea (black-throats are by far the most numerous diver species here) and several great crested grebes. Eight or nine marsh harriers soared over the reedbeds. Being next to the sea was somewhat chilly, so we didn’t linger for too long.
We then drove round the southern side of the lake to gain a different viewpoint, driving past an abandoned dairy farm, a left-over of the Communist era. Crumbling, ugly buildings were a grim reminder of another age. As we walked to see the geese, we came across a shepherd with his small flock of sheep and goats. How much has his life changed, I wonder, with Bulgaria joining the EU?
From our new viewpoint we were rewarded with great flocks of whitefronts (over 5,000) flying round, only to be disturbed by white-tailed eagles (at least two) before flying back to land on the lake. We managed to see red-breasts swimming and flying, with the peak count rising to 50. One pair even flew almost over us, looking small, dark and short-necked compared with the whitefronts. Seven whoopers on the lake gave a good view, while there were also several greylags of the pink-beaked eastern race.
After some time here, sheltering from the chilly wind but enjoying the sunshine, we left for lunch in a nearby restaurant. Here soup was the order of the day. There was a choice of three, but while chicken and fish proved popular, no-one opted for tripe. As we ate we watched jackdaws of the distinctive local race, with a marked white collar. There were also crowds of house sparrows along the street.
After lunch we drove down to the Kaliakra limestone gorge which I have visited before. From the shore we had good views of Mediterranean shags, then retraced out steps back up the flooded valley. Water rails squealed unseen from the reeds, but birds were few until Dimiter showed us a roosting eagle owl, sitting in a hole in the rocks across the valley from us. Though distant it was a great view. Walking on, we came across a mixed flock of finches which included two or three hawfinches, though most of the birds were greenfinches. The hawfinches were scoped satisfactorily. A surprise sighting was a noisy trio of foxes. It appeared that the resident pair was seeing off an intruder.
Our path then took us to the step at the top of the gorge, and here we soon found several calandra larks, our target bird, along with many skylarks, a few corn buntings and meadow pipits. A fine furry fox re-appeared and galloped towards us until realising its mistake.
On the way back we admired the eagle owl once again. Dimiter suggested that we should wait to watch it fly out, and this we duly did, though it wasn’t until dusk (5.55), 50 minutes later, that it finally flew. It landed on a rock overlooking the gorge, where we watched it hooting, the white feathers at the throat puffing up as it emitted its low, far-carrying hoots. Magic stuff. It had been a long wait, but was well worth it, though the temperature was close to freezing making it somewhat chilly.
(While waiting for the owl to move, I heard some hooting from farther down the track. I went to investigate and found a birding party walking towards me, so suspected that I had heard their tape machine. I was right, but the funny thing was that they were playing a tape for Ural owl. They proved to be a German group.)
We were back at the hotel by 6.30, with dinner at 7.30. This was, once again, excellent, with salad and yoghurt followed by chicken soup, then mousaka (with potato rather than aubergine). I had chocolate and yoghurt for my pudding, which I much enjoyed. Five bottles of red wine were consumed… Our bird tally hadn’t reached 50 species, but with red-breasted goose and eagle owl it was high on quality.
Breakfast was the usual feast of cucumbers, tomatoes, salami, two sorts of cheeses and toast, plus hard-boiled eggs. We left once again at 8am sharp on a less cold morning, though once again with a clear sky.
I’m not getting more used to the scenery, with the huge fields, the many derelict and abandoned farm buildings and the blowing plastic litter around each village. Rubbish, and litter, is a major problem here.
It was back to the geese again, and we soon found a large flock feeding rather closer to the lake than yesterday. We walked along a hedgerow to get a closer view, our boots collecting a thick layer of mud to their soles. The soil here is both rich and extremely sticky. Among the geese we soon spotted a few red-breasts. After a while something alarmed the birds, and they rose into the air with a roar of wings and a great gable of calls. We trudged back to the bus and spent the next 10 minutes trying to clean our boots.
Dimiter suggested that we should watch the geese again from the other side, so we drove back round. It was a pleasant walk down to the lake as yesterday’s wind had faded away to almost nothing and the sun was warm on our backs. Corn buntings sang around us. As we walked down a trio of distant pygmy cormorants gave an untickable view. There were no whoopers on the lake today, but there were a few wigeon, shoveler and a single tufted duck, all new for our list. A bearded tit flew over our heads, while a pleasing sight was a small flock of five great white egrets which came drifting in, landed, and then moved on again. They looked beautiful against the blue sky. The geese proved fidgety, flying out to the fields to feed, then coming back to land on the lake, all the time making a great clamour. Once a skein of about 40 or more red-breasts flew over, giving fine views.
There was a little excitement when we saw the shepherd, stripped off and in the water, hauling in a great crested grebe that had become trapped in a poacher’s fishing net. Plunging into the lake must have been a freezing experience, but the bird was rescued and released.
We walked back along the dyke of the former fish ponds (Dimiter said that they were so badly constructed that they only lasted a few years). Greylags rose noisily from pools in the reed beds and a pair of lapwings flew over. There were lots of reed buntings in the reeds, but we eventually had good views of bearded tits. The highlight of the morning was a penduline tit that Dimiter and I had heard calling. Susan managed to find it, only about 20ft from us low in the reeds, and it eventually gave everyone a close, clear view. It proved to be the best bird of the day. Martin glimpsed another one, while second later a water rail flew across a pool, seen by a few of us. A single red-breast flew over, calling noisily.
We then drove to a nearby village for our soup lunch. I opted for fish, which was a mistake as though it tasted quite good, it was full of tiny bones. Outside the restaurant a tame and approachable pair of Syrian woodpeckers gave close views.
After lunch we drove to Shabla, where I’ve been before on both previous trips. The lake by the derelict campsite added shelduck, pochard and little grebe to the list, but there weren’t many birds on the water apart from the coots. There were, however, numerous spent cartridges littering the edge of the lake’s shore.
As we walked through the dunes to the sea a flock of 10 black-tailed godwits flew over. According to Dimiter they are the first of the spring migrants, appearing at the same time as lapwings and golden plover. When we reached the beach we immediately disturbed two black-throated divers. They struggled desperately to get back into the water, but both were oiled, one heavily so. The latter made a sad sight as it tried to preen itself. Farther out at sea was another pair of divers that looked much healthier, as well as several black-necked grebes. Two pairs of red-breasted mergansers also put in a welcome appearance, one of the drakes even treating us to a display.
We walked back along the road by the camp site, seeing two pairs of Syrian woodpeckers, one of which was drumming. A green woodpecker was also seen, along with a flock of a dozen or so tree sparrows. Greenfinches and goldfinches were numerous, three crested larks flew over and more corn buntings were heard singing.
Though we scoped another of the Shabla lakes, we added nothing new. However, on our drive home, we saw a little owl, perched on a derelict military building. It was our last bird of note for the day. We did make a final stop on cliffs overlooking the sea. Here there was a shellfish farm, with the familiar EU emblem indicating that our friends in Brussels were supporting the venture. We were back in the hotel before 6.
Dinner was salad with red peppers (clearly a local speciality), bean soup and then what is best described as a chicken omelette.
No geese today. After breakfast (ham and eggs) we drove south to a riverine forest reserve, Baltata, adjacent to a large holiday resort which caters mainly for Germans. It was good for woodpeckers: within the first 200 yards we had seen green, great and lesser spotted, and we heard middle spotted calling close by on several occasions, but failed to see one. We also enjoyed good views of hawfinch, siskins, and blue, great and long-tailed tits. We eventually got many good views of short-toed treecreepers, and even started to learn the distinctive song, which is completely unlike the soft, high-pitched song of our treecreeper. Woodpigeons were new for the list, while song thrushes were singing. We also watched a foraging red squirrel, though it was a rather greyish red squirrel in its winter coat.
We walked slowly through the wood, eventually reaching the towering holiday hotels, looking rather liked wedding cakes, and the attractive sandy beach. (It was goo to see a party of locals picking litter.) There was a crowd of gulls on the beach: mainly yellow-legged and black-headed, but also one common. The sun was warm on our backs making it a delightful walk.
From Baltata we drove a short distance in the bus and stopped under the cliffs to look for long-legged buzzards, but without success. It was particularly warm here, so it wasn’t surprising to see several male brimstones, small whites and a single comma. There was also a woodlark singing, heard by some of the sharper-eared members of the group. Dimiter told us of the property developments on the steppe, with apartments aimed at the British market, and the inevitable golf courses being built alongside. Why do these resorts always have to have a golf course?
After lunch (same restaurant as Monday, but this time most of us had kebab and chips) we drove out to Cape Kaliakra, though pausing on the way for an uncooperative long-legged buzzard and two distant female hen harriers. It was a pleasure walking out onto the Cape, as the sun was shinning and there was hardly any wind. Far below us on the clear water were scores of black-necked grebes, along with numerous cormorants and shags. The cliffs here are an important breeding site for the Mediterranean race of shags. Barbara managed to spot a female black redstart while I picked up a chiffchaff, though the latter proved elusive and hard to see. I also managed to find a couple of common gulls on the sea, while a steady passage of black-headed gulls moved north. According to Dimiter this was the start of the spring migration. A pair of crested larks appeared when we got back to the bus.
In many ways the Cape reminded me of Gibraltar, with similar views from steep cliffs out over the sea. The other resemblance was the litter, with plastic bottles and other litter strewn everywhere, though it would probably take a small team not more than a day to spruce it up.
Driving back to the steppe, we stopped to look for long-legged buzzards. Just as we were giving up, a speck in a tree, spotted by Martin, opened its wings and revealed itself to be our quarry. We then had a long hike across the dry steppe (with singing Calandra larks) until we finally got satisfactory views of a perched buzzard, looking pale-headed and rusty orange. As we walked we crunched over spent cartridge cases. Dimiter tells us that this area is a major gathering ground for quail on the autumn migration, many of which get shot. This wouldn’t matter that much as the population can sustain it, but migrating corncrakes get shot here, too.
Before dinner I went to an internet café with Dimiter. Rows of computers sat side-by-side, and there were several young men there, either surfing the net or playing video games.
For our last night’s dinner we enjoyed the usual salad, then soup followed by the chef’s speciality, pork with mushrooms on toast. It was good, but a bit too filling for most of us. This was followed by an extravagantly iced gateau that certainly hadn’t been made by the chef. Four bottles of red and one of white helped wash it all down.
Not such a cold morning, as there was little condensation on my bedroom windows. After breakfast (yoghurt all round) and a visit to the post office we set off for the woods south of Varna, travelling on the main road past villa and apartment developments, advertising Gary Player Signature golf courses and other such delights.
Varna, we gathered, is the third largest town in Bulgaria with a population of about half a million. It is also a busy port. Viewed from the south, it appeared to be a rather long town but without much depth. Most of the housing is in flats.
The woodpecker wood was only just out of Varna, a fact we were reminded of by the profusion of plastic rubbish and builder’s rubble at the start of the path. Middle spotted woodpecker was reluctant to come to the tape, and first we saw green woodpecker, followed by a pair of great spotted. The middle spots did come in eventually, and after a bit of excited fidgeting around one settled down and let itself be admired and digiscoped. Middle spots are handsome birds, with their smart red caps and heavily streaked pink underparts. Dimiter tried for grey-headed, too, but without success.
It was a managed oak wood, with all the tree of a similar age. A few wild crocuses added colour to the woodland floor, while Barbara also found a few snowdrops. A new bird for the trip was nuthatch, looking just like the birds we get at home.
Dimiter then took us to two more sites for black woodpeckers, but though we saw nest holes in the trees, no birds were attracted by the tape. Hawfinches added interest at both sites, but otherwise there wasn’t a great deal to be seen.
Our next stop was a marsh adjacent to Varna lake where Dimiter promised us pygmy cormorants. Apparently over 1,000 use the reedbeds as a roost, but there are always small numbers to be seen during the day. We soon saw them both flying in and sitting in the reeds, hanging their wings out in typical cormorant style.
There was a good variety of wildfowl on the marsh, with teal and gadwall new for the list, plus shoveler, wigeon, mallard and pochard. Our first viewpoint overlooked the marsh, but we then drove round and approached it from lake-level. Here we tried without success for moustached warbler, a scarce wintering bird here, but several members of the group heard a Cetti’s warbler, our last new species for the trip.
A courting pair of brown hares were seen by a few people, but a small fritillary butterfly created more interest. Its identity will have to wait until its picture can be emailed to an expert.
Lunch was a pleasant surprise. Dimiter warned us that it wasn’t a proper restaurant, and when we turned off the main road into an estate dominated by crumbling tower blocks we feared the worst. However, remarkably, there was a smart and modern café tucked around the back, and it boasted the best loo seen on the trip. The shish-kebab lunch, with chips, wasn’t bad either, while five large beers and four glasses of wine cost 11 levi, or not much over £3.
After lunch we attempted to cross the canal by ferry, but the ferry boat seemed to be resting, so we had to drive around instead to our night heron site. This wasn’t either attractive (being on the edge of the docks) or productive, as we saw nothing of note, and no herons. Shame, as it would have been good to have finished on a high note. Instead the last species of the trip was ostrich: Ba spotted a pen with three in as we drove out of Varna towards the airport.
We arrived at the airport on a sunny afternoon with more than two hours to go before our flight’s departure. My telescope and camera were inspected by the security man, but otherwise our departure proved simple. The species total for the trip was 85: quality rather than quantity.